The thing about Unitarians is that we seldom stand completely in one camp. Just as we rarely hold a vision in common about how the multiverse operates, we rarely confine ourselves to one community of faith. Seeking guidance, help and inspiration from a wide range of human sources (experiential, emotional, artistic, historic, scientific, mystic; solo and collaborative) - and from environmental sources as we live as animals on this Earth - we also tend to wander freely between circles of influence in terms of faith teaching.
So it is a rare Unitarian who adopts a single, or even prime, teacher to guide their path. A number of UK Unitarians are satisfied in labelling themselves Unitarian Christians, and in doing so are content to be seen as people for whom the Jewish rabbi Jesus (or Yeshua) is the prime reference. But the practice and contemplation of Unitarian Christians is not exclusive to Yeshua - there is a wealth of guidance available under the generic “Christian” banner that has not directly come from the words or actions of Yeshua, but instead, has come in an indirect way, from the thoughts and actions of other followers of Yeshua who have gone before.
For myself, for instance, I have gained a lot from paying attention to the guidance of the Abbot Benedict, a Roman Catholic monk living in the sixth century, and the Rule for life in community which he crystallised for his monks; as well as from various contemporary commentators on Benedict. But that feels a long way removed from the words I hear reported as coming directly from Yeshua, as written in the Bible. I have learned from Christianity rather than directly from Yeshua; and so I do not really think of myself as a Unitarian Christian.
Now, because of my interest in Benedict, I belong to a Benedictine group, whose members alongside me are traditional Christians. One of the books we are currently reading together is a book by Professor Rowan Williams, Being Disciples. Unlike the rest of the group, in the reading of this book there is work for me to do, to translate terms, directed by the author at traditional Christians, into terms that seem to me to be universally applicable. It is only by doing this that I can hold true to my Unitarian calling: I strongly feel that a teacher has been truly wise only if their teaching can be applied to all humankind, not to just a select grouping, or to a specific time. ‘What is true everywhere, over all time’, worded also as ‘oneness of all humankind’, is crucial to me.
So I am now reading Williams’ Being Disciples with this question, this context in my mind: Yeshua the teacher of ‘oneness’. Because, if ‘oneness’ is the touchstone for a Unitarian, then a teacher will be helpful to the extent that they address the ‘oneness’ issue.
Williams suggests that being a disciple - a student of a teacher or guru - is not a set of ‘I can pick up-I can put down’ activities, but rather is a state of being; and that it requires staying in the company of the guru or teacher over long periods, even when nothing much seems to be happening. It requires being attentive to the teacher, he says, and going with them even as they go to places you would not have chosen for yourself. That bit is very important.
In Williams’ book we are reminded that Yeshua went to some places his contemporary followers found very uncomfortable; and that he received criticism for both his behaviour and for the company he kept. From the ‘oneness’ standpoint, I see Yeshua deliberately taking action to challenge and break down the traditional divisions between people. He taught, as well as showing by demonstration, that those granted power and authority over others should behave humbly and put the needs of others before their own needs: the famous foot washing (John, Chapter 13). He broke taboos by eating and associating with people who were regarded as the dregs of Jewish society; and with despised collaborators with the Romans (e.g. tax collectors). It is clear that Yeshua saw such exclusions as running counter to what is best in and best for humankind, and he demanded that those who followed him should set aside such barriers. He emphasised an old teaching of non-exclusion in Judaism: that the very ingredient left on the side is the key element in the whole affair. (Psalm 118, quoted by Yeshua in Matthew, Chapter 21; Mark, Chapter 12; Luke, Chapter 20).
Yet - demonstrating to me his humanity - Yeshua was not himself perfectly consistent in living his message (and knew it: “Why do you call me good? Only one is good, and that is God.” (Matthew, Chapter 19; Mark, Chapter 10; Luke, Chapter 18)). He was challenged to reach out beyond his Jewish cultural habits: to a Roman soldier who sought healing for a member of his household (Matthew, Chapter 8), and to a Samarian woman at a well, whom at first Yeshua seemed reluctant to include (Matthew, Chapter 15). Yeshua was stretched on both these occasions, but he passed the test of his own message - when the chips were down - by treating these others as he treated his own.
So Yeshua was looking for ‘oneness’ between all sorts of people. And if we choose to use his teachings and example as our guide, we must work to break down barriers between people, and treat the last as first, even at the cost of placing ourselves in situations not designed for our own comfort.
But Yeshua’s teaching is not limited to ‘oneness’ of human society. As a mystic, his teaching extends to relationships with God.
Prof Williams suggests that: “…The relationship of Jesus to the Father is not episodic. Jesus does not receive an occasional bit of instruction from the Father; his relationship is sustained, eternal and unbroken.”
My own reading is that Yeshua is attentive to the divine reality in a continual way; an unending ‘oneness’ subsisting between him and what brought him into being and sustained him. And then he extends that: he extends the ‘oneness’ between God and himself, to a ‘oneness’ starting with God and including himself then extending to his disciples: “I am the vine and you are the branches.” (John, Chapter 15). “My Father, who gave them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand. I and my Father are one.” (John Chapter 10). “Truly, I say to you, he that receives whomsoever I send receives me; and he that receives me receives him that sent me.” (John Chapter 13). “No man knows who the Son is, but the Father; and who the Father is, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him.” (Luke, Chapter 10).
It seems that Yeshua sees this experience of ‘oneness’ with truth and reality as both possible and essential, for anyone who wishes to follow the same path: “The Kingdom lies within you.” (Luke, Chapter 17). “Rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” (Luke, Chapter 10).
And Yeshua uses the idea of God as Father, rather than Judge, to indicate the familial intimacy and connectedness that we should feel with God. So Yeshua, the breaker of barriers between people, is encouraging his followers to see a continuum, not a separation, between their worldly being and the creative power, or will, that brings them into being.
And perhaps the most famous of all the teachings of Yeshua is this: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Deuteronomy, Chapter 6 and Leviticus Chapter 19, quoted together by Yeshua in Matthew, Chapter 22; Mark, Chapter 12; Luke, Chapter 10).
As Williams has it: “…so we in our discipleship [of Jesus] are summoned to gaze into the mystery of that infinite love and to seek to do that same eternal will: to ‘act’ that same action, on earth as it is in heaven, as the Lord’s Prayer puts it.”
So it seems to me that Yeshua is - among other things - a teacher of ‘oneness’: a ‘oneness’ stretching from the source of the multiverse, through the laws governing evolutionary environmental existence and human society (“heaven and earth”), through the compassion wisdom of the spiritual guides and the prosaic nature of ordinary life, to concrete expression in the most outcast, ignored and helpless of our kind and of animal kind. Yeshua’s teaching infers a demand for an attentive recognition of the integrated web of relationship and interdependence, and this as part of an unending search for what is best in and best for humankind.
And again from Prof Williams, regarding what the actions and teachings of Yeshua can be used towards as we live today: “…what it’s all finally about is enabling you to do some very ordinary things a little bit better, in a way that is suffused by eternal love taking up residence in the heart…..what the disciple learns: how to be a place in the world where the act of God can come alive.”